Desert Diorama Story

After traveling around 1,700 difficult and exhausting miles of the California Trail, the emigrants along the Humboldt River still had their greatest trials ahead of them. Just west of present-day Lovelock, Nevada the Humboldt River ends at the Humboldt Sink. The Humboldt Sink is a dry lakebed where the Humboldt River sinks into the ground and ends after flowing across roughly 300 miles of the state of Nevada. Being located in the Great Basin, the Humboldt River has no outlet to the sea. This abrupt end to the river that had sustained the pioneers and their livestock across the desolate and arid Great Basin left a forty mile stretch of desert before the next available grass and water.

The Eastern side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains is dry and receives very little annual precipitation. Nevada is in the rain shadow of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Air must rise to pass over the mountains. When the air rises it cools and cooler air holds less water, so the air becomes saturated and drops moisture as it continues to rise. The clouds drop a majority of their precipitation on the western side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains leaving little for the eastern side.

In an effort to cross the Sierra Nevada Mountains before snowfall and avoid ending up like the Donner-Reed Party, the emigrants left the Missouri River between mid-April and mid-May. This timeline meant they were traveling across the Great Basin and the Forty Mile Desert in July and August, the hottest months of the year. The modern town of Lovelock, which is roughly the start of the Forty Mile Desert receives an average of .24 inches of rainfall in the month of August and the average temperature is 96 degrees.

The emigrants' final stop to gather water and grass for their animals was in the vicinity of Lovelock at a site known as Big Meadows. Many of the emigrants stopped over here for a few days to let their oxen, mules and horses recover as much as possible before attempting the crossing. Their livestock had already pulled their wagons for nearly 1,700 miles and had been traveling along the Humboldt for 300 of those miles. As the emigrants progressed down the Humboldt River the water quality worsened and grass became scarce. During the high traffic years such as 1849 (25,000 people), 1850 (44,000 people) and 1852 (50,000 people) those at the end of the migration struggled along the Humboldt River finding no grass and bitter, alkali-filled water that could poison their livestock quickly if they were not careful. Many of the emigrants arrived at the Forty Mile Desert exhausted with weak livestock that could barely pull their wagons.

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Excerpt from Margaret Frink's Aug. 16 diary entry

After stocking up on as much grass and water as the weakened animals could pull, the emigrants prepared to cross the desert. Many of the emigrants waited until evening to begin their crossing to try and avoid the heat of the day for as long as they could. It often took them around 24 hours of hard travel with very few breaks to make it to the water on the other side. Many emigrants commented on the vast amounts of property that had been left behind by others in an attempt to lighten the load of their wagons and survive the crossing. In 1850, Margaret Frink wrote, “… we soon began to realize what might be before us. For many weeks we had been accustomed to see property abandoned and animals dead or dying. But those scenes here were doubled and trebled.” Many had to leave behind their wagons and possessions when their animals died or could no longer pull the wagons. Margaret Frink also wrote, “Around them were strewed yokes, chains, harness, guns, tools, bedding, clothing, cooking utensils and many other articles in utter confusion. The owners had left everything, except what provisions they could carry on their backs and hurried on to save themselves.”

Margaret Frink's diary can be viewed at Hathitrust Digital Library. It is also reprinted and available in the CTIC giftshop in the Covered Wagon Women series of books (Volume 2, or "Best of" Volume 1). You might also be interested in the "Through Their Own Words" Frink diary tour through the CTIC plaza.

The drive across the desert only became harder as the emigrants neared its end. The longer the oxen went without water the weaker and more exhausted they became only to be faced with eight to ten miles of deep sand before reaching the river. If their oxen could no longer pull the wagons at this point the emigrants would leave behind their wagons and push on to the river as fast as they could in hopes the oxen would survive to make it to the water and then go back for their wagon and belongings. The relief the emigrants felt as they reached the Carson and Truckee Rivers cannot be imagined by the modern traveler. Peter Decker wrote, “…we camped under large & beautiful Cotton Wood trees …Not having seen a tree for last 700 miles or since left Fort Hall, the sight of this wooded stream was an object of perfect delight. After desert life a tree is an object of Social interest & beautiful trees do appear so cheerful & homelike.” In 1852, William Henry Hart shared the sentiments of many emigrants when he wrote, “We were all very glad when we sighted at several miles distance the line of cottonwood trees that fringe the Carsen, and partook of its clear pure cold water with a zest only known to weary travellers”

The emigrants showed amazing strength and perseverance when crossing the Forty Mile Desert. It is hard to imagine the difficulties they faced when we drive across the desert at eighty miles an hour in an air-conditioned car. On the Truckee Route in 1849, Andrew Orvis was a great example of the pioneers’ perseverance. He said, “I thought I would never get through and I laide down to kick the bucket; but I thought of home and it give me a little more grit and I would get up and stager along.”